You just realized that it’s officially spring this week. So yesterday, you went hard at the gym. (Trying that bathing suit on really gave your motivation a swift kick in the ass.)
Today, you can barely sit down on the toilet and can’t raise your arms above shoulder height. So you cancel your spin class, call it a rest day, and vow to go twice as hard tomorrow.
We tend to view the break from the gym as an indulgent, unplanned day off, instead of as an important component of our fitness plan. But rest days are just that: an essential piece of any effective training routine.
When professional athletes don’t get sufficient rest when training, they often hit a plateau in performance, have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and experience exhaustion, all symptoms that have been categorized under “overtraining syndrome.” Overtraining—or “burnout”—essentially occurs when an athletes body is stressed to the point where rest is no longer adequate to allow for recovery.
We may not be hitting the gym twice a day for hours at a time like a professional athlete, but even for ndateurs who are training for a half marathon this spring or simply trying to drop that winter weight by summer, rest days are an important piece of an exercise routine. One that we often overlook, or peg as a slip up or a guilt-ridden decision made in a moment of weakness.
“A rest day is when your body gets stronger! You can’t always keep pushing, pushing, pushing. You will wear yourself down and become injured and overtrained,” said Sara Dimmick, personal trainer, USA Triathlon Coach and founder of Physical Equilibrium in NYC. “It is not only physical, but also mental. You need a mental recovery day, too.”
The Importance of Rest: Progress Isn’t Made in the Gym
Contrary to what most people assume, it’s not when we’re pushing ourselves through a 5-mile run or pumping out that last rep in the weight room that we’re building muscle.
That’s what happens afterwards. When we go home, refuel with a healthy meal and curl up in bed.
During your workout, you create tears in the muscle and spike hormone levels that signal to the body it’s time to rebuild and get that summer body show on the road. So while pushing the body, breaking down muscle and creating that internal stress is vital to triggering the process, it is the response to that stimulus, which occurs when we are in rest and recovery mode after a tough workout, that is responsible for the actual process of tissue repair, muscle formation, and building strength.
Resting and refueling is critical to this recovery period, which is characterized by “the restoration of energy-producing enzymes inside the muscles, functional proteins, fat and carbohydrate stores, and the regeneration of the endocrine and immune systems,” Trent Stellingwerff, the research and physiology leader at the Canadian Sport Institute, told Runner’s World.
This recovery period is vital to making progress, said Tyler Spraul, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and the Head Trainer at Exercise.com. “Without a chance to rest and rebuild after the stress of workouts and long work days, you will eventually start to break down,” he said. “Scheduling your rest days is a great way to prevent burnout over the long haul, which helps you to stay on track and gives you better results in the end. It seems counterintuitive that rest days would enhance your workouts, and today’s marketing message tends to focus only on hard work and effort, but working smarter by incorporating rest days into your training is the way to go.”
This time spent recovering is not only necessary for refueling the body so that it can perform at an optimal level, but it’s essential to the process of repair and growth that reduces fat and builds muscle tone.
“It takes 48-72 hours to fully recover from a hard weight workout,” said Robert Herbst, personal trainer, coach, world-champion power lifter and member of the AAU Strength Sports Hall of Fame. “If you don’t give your body a chance to recover you will over train. At the least, you will not make progress (real growth occurs outside the gym as your body anticipates future stress based upon what you did in the gym). At worst, you will injure yourself. Even doing cardio the day after a weight workout can cause overtraining as resources are diverted from recuperation.”
So just how many rest days should we be scheduling into our weekly routine to ensure we’re allowing for adequate recovery?
The consensus usually falls somewhere in the one- to three-day range, depending on your fitness level, training routine and goals.
A meta-analysis of 140 studies found that when it comes to building strength, one to two rest days between training sessions is ideal, while other research claimed that two days should be the minimum amount of rest time, since muscle soreness peaks 48 hours after a workout.
At the end of the day, it’s about listening to your body. But most experts seem to agree that aiming for two rest/recovery days per week is a smart rule of thumb to follow.
“I recommend all of my clients take one full rest day and one active rest day each week,” said Kyra Williams, NASM certified online personal trainer and nutrition expert, Crossfit Level One Trainer, USA Weightlifting and USA Powerlifting Coach. “This is good for everyone, physically and mentally. Physically, your body needs to recover. Muscle growth happens during recovery, while the tissue repairs itself after lifting is when gains occur. And for you to be able to recover properly to go hard again, you need to rest those muscles. So active rest days are key for that. They are also beneficial because you are still continuing to have that daily appointment set for yourself so you maintain the habit of moving daily. They are also beneficial mentally because you need time outside of the gym so you do not get bored.”
Active Recovery: Resting Strategically to Improve Performance
Now that we know we should be penciling “recovery” into our gym schedule twice a week, it’s important to note that that doesn’t mean heading straight home to your Netflix cue.
“Rest days don’t necessarily mean sitting on the couch,” said Dimmick. “If you are a runner, a good ‘rest’ day is walking, swimming, yoga, etc. It is called active recovery.”
It’s not about limiting movement, but instead, opting for movement that aids in the recovery process. “Rather than rest completely, one can do exercises that promote recovery such as stretching or light high rep work, which increases blood flow,” said Herbst. “This will also help mentally as sometimes people can’t stand to do nothing.”
Low-intensity exercise like swimming and walking have been shown to increase muscle relaxation, which supports recovery. Studies also show that yoga has therapeutic properties that can aid in muscle repair, enhancing muscular strength and body flexibility, improving respiratory and cardiovascular function, reducing stress, and improving sleep patterns.
“For active rest days I recommend recovery work, something more yin-like such as swimming or jogging at a moderate to light pace, walking, hiking, dancing or yoga,” agreed Williams. “Something that will warm up your muscles through movement and increase blood flow, but nothing where you push yourself.”
The Rise of Active Recovery
Knowing how important recovery is to a training routine, it’s no surprise that more and more gyms and boutique fitness studios are beginning to take note of their clientele’s desire (and need) for these types of activities. Now on the gym schedule, nestled between kickboxing and TRX, you’ll find foam rolling, stretching, rejuvenation yoga, and mobility ball classes with entire 45-minute blocks dedicated to recovery exercise.
Crunch gyms have a “MOTUS“ class on the schedule in which you utilize mobility balls (which they’ve dubbed RAD Rollers™) to isolate each muscle group for a deep tissue self-massage. The schedule also features a Balanced Body Yoga, where the instructor leads you through a very slow practice with deep breathing techniques designed to stretch muscles, release tension and improve your posture.
Boutique fitness studios are also jumping on the stretch and recovery bandwagon. Most recently, the cult fitness craze Barry’s Bootcamp introduced a “Stretch Lounge” at some locations, which will offer programming that complements each specific workout offered at the studio. For example, on Mondays, when the “Arms + Abs” class is offered at all Barry’s locations, there will be specific programming designed to help your sore muscles prepare for and recover from the targeted workout.
DIY: Active Recovery at Home
If your gym doesn’t yet offer recovery classes, or you’d rather reserve your precious ClassPass slots for your favorite spin class, that’s okay. Active recovery is simple to do on your own. As mentioned, there are numerous options when it comes to movements that help facilitate the repair and rebuilding of muscles, including walking and light jogging, swimming and yoga.
And when it comes time to hit the floor for a stretch session, there is one vital piece of equipment that can make all the difference in getting the most out of every single workout.
The Foam Roller: A Must-Have Tool to Facilitate Recovery
“A foam roller is an excellent tool to help you make the most of your rest days!” said Spraul. “Any time you are feeling especially beat up or worn out, spending 10-15 minutes to work on sore or tight areas with the roller will help you feel better immediately after you finish up, and also set you up for a better workout the next day. Look for one that has a good balance of firmness and ‘give’ to it. They are affordable, and it’s easy to find very portable options.”
The technique can actually help speed your recovery and get you back into the gym sooner—not to mention put your body in a state more conducive to getting a rigorous workout that properly utilizes each muscle. Studies show that foam rolling serves as a recovery tool to minimize delayed onset muscle soreness. And soreness aside, rolling helps loosen tight muscles that can impede the effectiveness of your workout and negatively impact your range of motion, form and even pain level.
“Foam rolling is a tool that everybody, no matter their age, fitness or activity level can and should be utilizing,” said Meg Furstoss, MS, NSCA-CSCS, co-founder of and conditioning coach at Precision Sports Performance (PSP). “Foam rolling is an excellent self-massage technique that increases blood flow to the area in which you are targeting and can help decrease muscle soreness while increasing mobility. By coupling foam rolling with appropriate mobility and stretching techniques, an individual can decrease both chronic and acute muscle soreness. At PSP, we utilize foam rolling prior to the workout to increase blood flow to the area prior to static and/or dynamic stretching.”
On your next rest day, give this basic five-move sequence a try to work out the kinks in specific body parts and help ease your body through recovery mode. Use this outline as a guide, but listen to your body and give it some love wherever it may need it. “While foam rolling, if there is a specific spot that is sore, focus on that area for a couple seconds really letting your body weight aid in working out the muscle and fascia in that area,” said Furstoss.
Another way to achieve similar results in a more concentrated area is to utilize mobility balls. Fun fact: a tennis or lacrosse ball will also do the trick. “You can get into harder to reach tight zones that are tough to get with a foam roller like chest, deep glutes, and bottoms of your feet,” said Spraul.
When to Sit It Out Altogether
Whether you’re too sore from an intense gym session, or you’re just physically or mentally exhausted (or both) from a long week, there are times when it’s not only appropriate, but necessary, to take the day off completely.
“Sometimes doing nothing is in order if the central nervous system is exhausted from heavy training,” said Herbst. “Then, people should just take a walk and go to a museum or movie to refresh themselves. They will be stronger and healthier in the long run.”
Yes, we are telling you that heading to the movies instead of the gym is a smart choice under these circumstances:
After a race: Signed up for a half marathon this spring? Don’t think you need to be pushing through a workout with stiff quads and sore glutes the next day. “The day or two after big workouts or races is a great time for a complete recovery,” said Dimmick. A study conducted on the calf muscles of marathon runners found that both the training for, and the marathon itself, induced inflammation and injury to muscle fibers that significantly impaired muscle power and durability for up to 2 weeks after the event. Plus, your immune system could use a break too: studies show that the immune system is compromised up to three days after a marathon, and overtraining will only increase your risk of catching a cold or the flu. So if there’s ever an excuse to sit this one out, a race or other intensive athletic feat is it.
When your soreness is affecting mobility: “If you are so sore it hurts to move, if you are so fatigued you feel like all you need is more sleep, or if you are just sick of working out in general, that is a good indicator you need an active or full rest day. So take it!” said Williams. Severe soreness can also affect your form, and the amount of energy you are able to devote to your workout, so pushing through the pain will likely result in less effective exercise. If the soreness is affecting your mobility, it’s best to let your muscles heal enough that you can perform movements with proper form before you get back to the gym.
When your sleep bank is running low: When you are sleep deprived and choosing between squeezing in a workout and getting to bed an hour earlier, always opt for the sleep. Not only is sleep an important time for muscle repair and energy regeneration, but research shows that it’s an important factor in athletic performance, so logging some Z’s will make your next workout more effective. Researchers at Stanford University found that getting adequate sleep is an important component of peak performance, leading to improved reaction time, speed, and accuracy. “Scientists agree that runners need to log sufficient time at the third and fourth stages of the sleep cycle—that’s when the human growth hormone is released, which helps build and repair tissues. Without enough sleep, the body may produce more cortisol, which interferes with tissue repair. Lack of adequate sleep can also mess with metabolism, leaving runners without adequate glucose stores to fuel long efforts,” reported Runner’s World.
As tempting as vegging out on the couch may be, there are some more productive ways to spend a non-active rest day to ensure you are speeding along the recovery process.
Get a massage. “A week’s worth of lactic acid and joint soreness won’t just disappear—a sports massage will help release the muscular tension, while a deep tissue massage will address connective tissue and ligament issues,” said Amanda Dale, ACE-certified personal trainer, AFAA-certified exercise instructor, ASFA-certified sports nutritionist and wellness coach. “I recommend my high-performing clients get massages at least one per two weeks as their recovery day.”
Apply ice or heat. “Especially if you’ve been ignoring chronic joint pain (think runner’s knee, lower back soreness, shoulder tension), sitting on the couch with an ice or heat pack and some Tiger Balm can give you some relief,” said Dale.
Have a cocktail—of tart cherry juice. “Sour cherry juice has been linked to decreases in post-workout inflammation and can absolutely accelerate recovery on a rest day,” suggested Dale.
Wear compression gear around the house. “Calf sleeves for shin splints, compression tops for back issues, compression socks for plantar fasciitis—to help speed up recovery for the workouts ahead,” said Dale. It may also improve your performance once you’re back in the gym: A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that wearing compression socks for 48 hours after running a marathon improved performance on a treadmill test two weeks later.
Go and get your rest on. You’ve earned it.
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